The evolution of languages is a fascinating and necessary process


Online Optimism

From reading to writing to speaking out, language is the most essential tool in our lives.

“Exquisite poison,” “gorgeous servility,” “distant hautbois,” “tremulous ecstasy,” and “munificent patron” represent a mere sample of the combinations of words found in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Oscar Wilde’s cadence of words and his eloquence in writing; however, some of my peers are not of the same opinion as they have remarked that the reading level is too difficult to properly enjoy the piece of literature.  

After all, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published about 132 years ago, and the manner in which we speak has drastically changed in that amount of time. Going back even further to the 1600s writing of Hamlet, the dialogue becomes even more difficult to decipher. While the people of England in the 1600s may not have spoken in theatrical iambic pentameter, the writing of Shakespeare’s plays is still a general reflection of the language used in the time period. 

Language is an art, and a glorious one, whose influence extends over all others.”

— J. H. Tooke

So, how has the English language drastically changed over the past centuries?

Ironically, 1,700 words commonly used today are credited to Shakespeare himself as he combined words, shortened them, and created verbs out of nouns. While many of us will never become as prolific and influential as Shakespeare, each person holds responsibility for the words they wish to stick around. The evolution of a dialect can be subtle over the course of a couple of years, but widening the lens to a couple hundred proves a striking contrast.

In addition, it’s no surprise that many words derive from advances in technology. Inventions such as the television and the telephone needed names so we could talk about the screens we stare at on a daily basis. These changes come naturally, but it’s entertaining to imagine people from the 1600s trying to follow an entire conversation about two letters. What’s so special about a T and a V?

Many foods and other words are directly copied from other languages; nearly every person in the United States knows “pizza,” “tacos,” or “sushi” even though these originate from entirely different languages. Brand names such as “Kleenex” also become common use as regular words. When a phrase is so commonly used and accepted, it isn’t questioned by children learning a language. 

Older generations may frown upon the teenage “slang” that pops up over the years, such as the admittedly overuse of “slay” in a positive context, “cap” to refer to a lie, or “per” as a shortage of the word perfect. What’s amusing about this is that some slang of their teenage years sticks around, becoming natural in our vocabulary, and the same will go for the words we generate. Who knows? Our posterity may use the phrase “you slayed” more frequently than “you were amazing.”

According to the Linguistic Society of America, these changes are not sloppy or lazy; instead, languages are constantly changing to benefit the needs of the generation using them. This cycle will continue for eternity with words constantly swaying to the will of the people.

On the other hand, many terms have been practically erased from the language or are on a steady decline in usage, despite their relevance to modern-day conversation. According to Oxford Royale Academy, a few of these examples include “to cavil,” “to supererogate,” and “mumpsimus” which respectively mean to make petty complaints, to work beyond what’s required, and purposeful mistakes after they have been corrected. The reason for their decline in usage is unclear, but it might be fun to revive these words before they fade away for good.

Whether you miss the old words or embrace the change, it might be an interesting experiment to test out some new terms of your own or bring back some of the old ones. No matter what, a slow adaptation of every language is inevitable. There’s something beautiful in the fact that there will never be a dictionary entirely up-to-date. Language is a tool that lives and breathes with us, and we have the power to innovate that tool to effectively serve its purpose.